WASHINGTON -- President Barack Obama on Wednesday issued a routine block to a 20-year old congressional effort to move the U.S. embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. But two decades of stalling on the relocation could soon end if the 2016 GOP candidates have their way.
Every six months, Obama sends the same memo to the secretary of state, stating the need to delay the move in order to “protect the national security interests of the United States.” The biannual letter is necessary because a law passed by Congress in 1995 requires the American embassy to be moved to the disputed city of Jerusalem by May 31, 1999.
The bill also declared that the U.S. government supported the recognition of Jerusalem as an undivided city and the capital of Israel. Congress threatened to withhold half of the State Department’s funding for “acquisition and maintenance of buildings abroad” if the Jerusalem-based embassy did not open by 1999.
Despite widespread bipartisan support -- the bill passed 93-5 in the Senate and 374-37 in the House -- the new embassy never opened and the State Department’s funding continued to flow.
Since the passage of the legislation, Presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and, now, Obama have taken advantage of a national security waiver provision in the bill, which allows the president to suspend the embassy move for six months.
While several countries, including the U.S., have consulates in Jerusalem, most foreign embassies are located in Tel Aviv, which the international community treats as the de facto capital of Israel. The status of Jerusalem remains one of the key obstacles to a peace agreement between Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories. Israel claimed Jerusalem as its capital in 1950 and annexed the eastern part of the city during the 1967 Six-Day War -- but the Palestinians view Jerusalem as the rightful capital of their future state.
Successive administrations have resisted the embassy relocation because the U.S. government does not recognize Israel’s annexation of East Jerusalem. At the same time, however, the U.S. has been reluctant to describe Jerusalem as “occupied territory,” since that would make it subject to the same international sanctions as the settlements in the West Bank. U.S. administrations have historically supported the idea of placing Jerusalem under international jurisdiction as part of a peace agreement.
Now, however, candidates for the Republican nomination in 2016 are promising to finally move the embassy, as they compete to outdo one another in demonstrations of support for Israel.
Sens. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who are both running for president in 2016, are co-sponsoring a new version of the 1995 legislation. However, the new and improved law would remove the national security waiver that has allowed the past three presidents to delay moving the embassy from Tel Aviv.
During a fundraising event in Tennessee on Saturday, soon-to-be candidate and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush told reporters he supported moving the embassy to Jerusalem “not just as a symbol, but a show of solidarity.”
While considering a 2012 GOP campaign, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee vowed that, "If I were president of the United States, I would move the American embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem." Huckabee, who entered the presidential fray for 2016 last month, reiterated his support for Israel at an Israel Day celebration in New York on Monday.
Regardless of the outcome of the 2016 election, however, the U.S. embassy is likely to remain in Tel Aviv. Since 1995, the Republican presidential platform has included a promise to move the embassy to Jerusalem. Yet Bush continued to sign waivers to avoid making the move during his eight years as president.
In 1992, Clinton campaigned on relocating the embassy. Once in office, however, he failed to follow through on that promise, which was part of the impetus for Congress to pass the 1995 law.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story stated incorrectly that Mike Huckabee ran for president in 2012. He just considered a run in 2012.